By Andrew Donlan
Mary Schmich was walking to work at the Chicago Tribune, as she did everyday, when she passed a young woman naively soaking herself in some of the first strong rays of sun on Lake Michigan after a long Chicago winter.
“I remember thinking ‘God, I hope she’s wearing sunscreen.’” Schmich said. “And I kept walking and I thought, you know, I’ve just got so much advice I’d like to give to young people.”
She laughed at herself, realizing she’d reached the age where such thoughts even crossed her mind. Later, she fired up her computer, grabbed a coffee and some M&Ms from the vending machine at the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue and began writing.
Closer to the end of the summer of ’97, a few months after she passed the sunbathing girl, Schmich got a call from a friend. His sister, who lived in Denver, had sent him an e-mail of a commencement speech by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT. It looked an awful lot like something he had read from her in the Chicago Tribune months earlier, he said.
“You better get on this,” he told her.
Schmich’s column, “Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young,” had gone viral on the Internet, before “going viral” was a mantra of popular culture. Her words, in the form of a mock commencement speech about simple life lessons, had been copied and pasted and sent to friends and family of readers, and then to friends and family of the friends and family that received it. Somewhere along the way, reminiscent of a more harmful and adult version of the game telephone, someone had said these were the words of Kurt Vonnegut at commencement at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The mis-attribution sent Schmich into a panic. She hadn’t plagiarized, of course. But maybe she did? She considered the possibility, after remembering reading about writers who insisted they didn’t know they were committing plagiarism while doing so. That brief and erroneous thought was dismissed once she remembered the girl she encountered on the way to work months ago—the girl sunbathing.
She called MIT, and they told her Vonnegut had not been the speaker at their graduation that year, nor had he ever been. She then contacted colleagues at the Chicago Tribune’s New York bureau to reach Vonnegut, who said he had no idea where or why he was given credit.
”What I said to Mary Schmich on the telephone was that what she wrote was funny and wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine,” Vonnegut told the New York Times. He even had to break the news to his wife, who had the “graduation speech” sent to her, and was proud of her husband. She asked him why he didn’t tell her he gave the commencement address at MIT.
Schmich’s immortal column was—as Vonnegut put it— funny, wise and charming. It transitioned between everyday life tips with serious relationship advice:
“Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.”
“Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.”
And she covered, as she put it, certain inalienable truths:
“Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.”
If you’ve never heard of Schmich’s column, it’s likely you’ve heard her advice. Perhaps it was attributed to Vonnegut; perhaps to Baz Luhrmann, the writer and director who bought the rights to 1997 column and turned in into a song; or maybe even to Eleanor Roosevelt, who is often incorrectly given credit for saying, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Schmich, not Roosevelt, said that in her column in 1997. It didn’t stop postcards from flying off the shelves crediting the former first lady, though.
“Once it started showing up on greeting cards and buttons attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that made me nuts,” Schmich said.
It’s also evident, despite their unwillingness to admit it, that Schmich has some fans at the athletic clothing brand Lululemon. “Wear Sunscreen”, “Floss and Travel” and “Do one thing a day that scares you,” a clear if slight deviation from Schmich’s “Do one thing every day that scares you,” have all appeared on forms of its merchandise.
Finally, a quote investigator cleared up the: “Do one thing every day that scares you” line. Those eight words, written in that order, can only be traced back to “Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young.”
Besides the Eleanor Roosevelt buttons, Schmich is mostly unfazed by the rampant mis-attributions, which have prevailed in the 21-plus years since the Tribune published her column. People still come up to her and challenge her about how she could do such a thing—how could she steal from Kurt Vonnegut? At least some of this ignorance is rectified. Twitter users reach out to her on the platform, nearly on a daily basis, to say her column made an impact on their lives.
“It has never for a minute bothered me that people think Kurt Vonnegut wrote it,” Schmich said. “It’s never bothered me that people think Baz Luhrmann wrote it, because he’s never claimed he did. He gave it a life that I never could’ve dreamed of.”
Luhrmann’s song version is performed as a mock commencement speech—akin to how the column was written—vocalized over music that adds to the feeling Schmich’s words evoked in the first place.
The frustrating reality, albeit not frustrating to the author herself, is that the origins of the mis-attributions may never be discovered.
“The adoption of the Internet was, of course, nowhere near where it is today,” said Owen Youngman, then the Director of Interactive Media at the Tribune. “Going viral in two months was pretty fast in those days, without Google or Facebook to share it. Linking was a thing, but there weren’t that many people on the web looking to link, and sharing was just not a thing.”
Ian Fisher, a writer for the New York Times, wrote an article titled “It’s All the Talk of the Internet’s Gossip Underground” in early August 1997, a few months after the column was published.
“It’s funny,” Fisher said. “I read that story now and think that it somehow managed to predict the future but also be filled with the naiveté of the time. There were hoaxes everywhere but it was all put in the box of ‘the small cost of this greatness that is the Internet.’”
Through it all, the column remains a genuine and breathtaking piece of writing from one of Chicago’s greatest writers. Schmich won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2012, another monumental achievement she remains bashful about.
On January 21st, 2019, Jeopardy recalled the column for its show. Unlike thousands of others before it, the show immediately gave Schmich credit.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have happened to me,” Schmich said. “I’m just thinking journalistically though, it’s not the best column I ever wrote. But it’s a piece of the whole thing. I think of journalism as an opportunity, and every column as an opportunity, and that just happened to be one that is having a life that I never could’ve imagined.”
Schmich began working at the Chicago Tribune in 1985. She is a born writer, but the world was close to missing out on the chance to ever read her at all. After undergrad at Pomona College in California, she worked in college admissions for her alma mater for three years. Then she went to France, learning the language and immersing herself in the culture. She may have never left if it wasn’t for her then-boyfriend.
“He sent me applications to journalism school, he said you should be a journalist,” Schmich said. “I didn’t get any money, I hadn’t applied for money. He drove down to Stanford and said ‘You let my girlfriend in, she needs money’ and they gave me money. God bless him.”
After Stanford, Schmich wrote for multiple newspapers across the country before landing at the Tribune. She spent multiple years in Atlanta as a national correspondent for the paper before ultimately earning her own column in Chicago. She wasted no time embedding herself in the city, exploring communities past streets that Chicago lifers had told her not to pass. With her fervent curiosity as an aid, her voice became one with Chicago.
Millions have read Schmich’s work, whether they knew the correct author while consuming it or not. If she’s too modest to accept credit for all of the lives she has touched with her writing—in that column and thousands of others—perhaps, then, we can assign credit to her former boyfriend who drove up to Palo Alto. Without her work, Chicago—and the rest of the world—would be a little bit dimmer of a place.
So trust her on the sunscreen.